“Well, at least they tried” – Review of Kathy Rain

There is a lot to love in Kathy Rain. The story has all the makings of an adventure game classic: You’ve got a family mystery, sprinklings of the supernatural, a plucky protagonist who don’t take no shit, and a cast of characters with depth and unique personalities.

You’ve also got an absolutely gorgeous presentation — everything from the amazing pixel-art graphics and the moody, evocative music to the superbly streamlined interface.

So what’s not to like?

Light 'em up, 'cos you're going to need it.
Light ’em up, ‘cos you’re going to need it.

This is a game that wears its influences loud and proud, like DIY patches on the back of a well-worn denim jacket. Particularly evident is its infatuation with the first Gabriel Knight game, Sins of the Fathers.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sins of the Fathers was a great game. It had all the things that Kathy Rain aspires to, and, for the most part, Kathy Rain does an admirable job of tapping into the things that made Sins of the Fathers so memorable.

It does, however, play up this inspiration to an almost pathological degree.

It’s not all pastiche, though. Our titular hero Kathy’s mystery concerns finding out why her granddad spent the last years of his life confined to a wheelchair muttering vague things about a dude in red, and why all his air force buddies seem to be suffering the same fate.

Aiding her in her quest is her plucky college roommate Eileen, who — despite her strict Christian upbringing — is more than willing to go along with Kathy’s anti-authoritarian approach to problem solving. At one point, she even excitedly exclaims that she’s looking forward to telling a lie to get past a certain obstacle, because that’s not something she’s done before.

The interpersonal dynamic between characters is where Kathy Rain truly shines. The characters all feel alive, and the script is taut and concise without sacrificing meaning or character development. There are no lengthy cutscenes of characters just talking at each other. So it’s got a leg up on The Longest Journey on that front alone.

It’s the building blocks of the story itself that seem plucked a bit too liberally from Gabriel Knight. If it was set in New Orleans or Rittersburg, Germany, and starred a narcissistic writer and his wisecracking Asian-American sidekick, the story could easily have been a fourth Gabriel Knight game.

It feels like more effort could have been put into distance the game from its obvious inspirations.

That tweet was supposed to say “area,” not “error.” 😉

But the plot itself is original enough, and it has all the right story beats that moves the mystery forward and makes you feel accomplished for uncovering the next piece of the puzzle.

That brings me to my first major gripe about the game: the puzzle design. For the most part, this is a story-driven game, so you’re really expected more to go chat up characters than exercise your grey bits.

When the game finally does throw an actual PUZZLE-puzzle at you, it’s usually of the laughably simple variety, or Kathy just flat out hands you the solution on a silver platter through some “here’s what I think” internal monologue.

She’s also, apparently, clairvoyant, because even if you manage to get it wrong, she will say something like, “I don’t think that’s the solution” — even though she couldn’t possibly know that herself.

A prime example happens near the end of the game, when it decides it wants to throw a serious conundrum at you involving the dates on a set of graves. There’s a connection between the dates, and the game helpfully shows you a diagram of the graves with all the dates on it alongside the cryptic hints that you found in a different location. The problem here is that the game doesn’t explain to you how it wants you to solve it — that is, mechanically, how you’re supposed to click your way to a solution — and you end up getting the first part almost by accident. Kathy, meanwhile, excitedly proclaims, “Ah, yes, of course!” while you’re scratching your head, and when you’re getting it wrong, she somehow instinctively knows that that’s not the right solution.

I still had to look up a walkthrough on several occasions, though, and every single time it was because of pixel-hunting. I said the graphics were gorgeous, and they are. But the rooms are also drawn in such a wide angle that objects on, let’s say, a desk are so minuscule and closely grouped together that you have to inch your mouse over it to identify every one.

It makes it very easy to miss things, even though the game very helpfully highlights objects when you mouse over them. It doesn’t help, either, that some objects can only be picked up when Kathy feels like it — that is, when the story has told her she needs them. (A certain thermometer springs to mind.)

Are you fucking kidding me?
Are you fucking kidding me?

My biggest complaint about the game comes in right at the end, when the big climax unfolds. We’re treated to a nightmare world where Kathy must come to terms with her own demons regarding her family and her past.

The family stuff is a bit on the nose — you have no real hand in what happens; Kathy just shouts out loud that she’s now ready to move on with certain things, despite nothing having changed significantly.

The stuff in her past, though, is downright insulting. Kathy has spent the entire game being a punk-y, independent woman who can hold her own. At the end, all of that is swiftly underminded by a scene which basically just says Kathy is this way because of a single event in her past, and that event is thrown in from left field with all the subtlety and grace of a freight train crashing into a kindergarten.

If you’re going to go for a “shock revelation” of this kind, you need finesse. You need to work it into the story so that it ties into the character’s motivations and reasoning. You can’t just drop a couple of vague dream-like cutscenes with cryptic dialogue, and then pull this shit during the final revelation.

You said it.
You said it.

I can’t go into any more detail without spoiling the crap out of the game, so if you’re interested in having this conversation with me, feel free to shoot me a mail or DM me on Twitter.

Maybe I’m wrong — maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention during the game (it was very late at night), and I’m willing to grant the game some leeway if it turns out there just wasn’t enough time during development to give this revelation the gravitas it deserved. But then they should have had the foresight to take it out rather than try to force it in with a shoehorn.

It just pissed me off tremendously: From a plot standpoint, it’s just clumsily handled. From a character standpoint, it undermined the character and reduced her to a one-dimensional stereotype. From a personal perspective — and I know I can’t speak from experience, but I would imagine this to be true — it’s a bit insulting to people who have actually gone through this sort of tragic event in real life to just have this carelessly chucked in for shock value and very little else.

So, Kathy Rain: Lots to recommend. It has a lot going for it: The story is good, the mystery is interesting, the characters are well-written, the graphics are gorgeous, the music is great, the voice acting is top notch, and the interface is great. On the downside, it wears its inspirations a bit too obviously, the puzzle design is lacklustre, and it absolutely sabotages itself at the end.

Would I recommend it? It’s still one of the better titles to come out of an otherwise slumpy 2016, so, yes, I would. It’s not a wholly satisfying experience, despite having all the makings of a classic. Oh, well. At least they tried.

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